Kidnapping is the most troublesome security problem facing Mexico’s government, and a breakdown of kidnapping reports by a watchdog group reinforces the idea that only long-term institutional reform can cure it.
A recently released analysis (pdf) by Mexico’s National Citizen Observatory (ONC) examining kidnappings since 1997 sets out some important trends that help break down the phenomenon by region.
1. Central Mexico is the region that sees the highest total number of kidnappings. As of 2013, there were nearly 700 reports of kidnapping in central Mexico and fewer than 400 in each of the four other regions defined by the ONC: the northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast. Reported kidnappings under federal jurisdiction -- generally those linked to organized crime -- have also been concentrated in central Mexico, with Guerrero, Mexico state and Morelos experiencing the highest number.
2. Northeast Mexico has the highest kidnapping rate. The region had slightly over two kidnappings per every 100,000 residents as of 2013, followed by the central region with slightly over 1.5 per 100,000. The northeastern state with the highest rate is Tamaulipas, which in 2013 saw more than 6 kidnappings per 100,000 residents.
Mexico is the kidnapping capital of the world.
3. Kidnappings are becoming more concentrated in a smaller number of states. The seven states with the highest number of reported kidnappings represented about 61 percent of the national total in 2012, but this grew to 73.7 percent in 2013. In these states, the number of municipalities reporting kidnappings increased. The number of municipalities with at least one kidnapping rose 12 percent in the same time period (from 311 to 349, up from 293 in 2011).
4. Mexico State, Michoacan, Veracruz and Guerrero had the highest number of municipalities that reported at least one kidnapping. There were 61 municipalities in Mexico state (out of 125 total) that reported at least one kidnapping in 2013. But Tamaulipas was home to the municipalities that reported the greatest number of kidnappings: Ciudad Victoria, Nuevo Laredo and Tampico collectively registered 139 cases in 2013.
5. Morelia has Mexico's highest number of kidnappings. This municipality in Michoacan reported 94 kidnap cases in 2013, nearly double the number the previous year. It's followed by the port city of Acapulco in Guerrero (66); Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas (where kidnappings also doubled from 2012, with 66 cases); Cuernavaca, Morelos (55); and Tampico, Tamaulipas (53).
InSight Crime Analysis
Mexico is the kidnapping capital of the world. Trends have pointed upwards since 2005 and there is little sign of this reversing in the states most affected by the phenomenon. The growth in kidnapping is linked to ex-President Felipe Calderon's assault on organized crime which began in 2006, the same year that the nationwide kidnapping rate began to spike dramatically. The security drive has decapitated many of Mexico's foremost drug cartels and limited their ability to earn revenue from drug trafficking. But it also prompted the emergence of newer, smaller criminal organizations that have turned to other forms of income besides the drug trade, increasing their reliance on localized crimes like kidnapping.
In 2005, Mexico saw 278 reported kidnappings. In 2013 -- the first year of the current administration -- there were 1,698 cases. This was an approximate 16 percent rise from the previous year, according to National Public Security System (SNSP) figures, and represented a more than six-fold increase over the space of eight years.
There have been small signs of improvement. On September 2, while giving his second state-of-the-union address, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced kidnappings had dropped 6.8 percent so far in 2014, compared with the same period last year. He credited the reduction to a new anti-kidnapping strategy launched earlier this year.
Peña Nieto's figure was based on statistics from the SNSP, which documented 909 kidnapping reports from state prosecutors for the first seven months of this year, compared to 975 in the same period last year.
But the so-called "cifra negra" -- cases which are not reported due to victims' fear of reprisals, or lack of confidence in the system -- is huge in kidnapping cases. A 2012 government survey on perceptions of security estimated that the actual number of kidnappings that year could have been over 100,000. More recently, non-governmental organization Alto al Secuestro (Stop the Kidnapping) claimed 1,766 kidnappings took place in the first six months of 2014, compared to 1,130 during the same period in 2013.
Data issues aside, what is clear from the ONC's statistical analysis is that the states with the highest number of kidnappings are among those worst afflicted by criminal groups and violent crime. Many of the states with the highest level of kidnapping -- Mexico state, Guerrero, Michoacan and Tamaulipas -- are also among the most violent in Mexico.
Kidnappings have been on the rise in Tamaulipas since at at least 2005, but spiked sharply after 2010 -- the same year the Zetas declared war on their progenitors, the Gulf Cartel. Even though kidnappings dropped slightly for a two-year period, they're on the rise again and are currently set to surpass last year's figures, with 158 preliminary investigations registered through July. This has accompanied a renewed spike of violence in Tamaulipas this year, following the fall of some key criminal players.
In Michoacan -- home to rising kidnapping capital Morelia -- the central government currently has to contend with a strong but divided vigilante movement and the Knights Templar criminal group, which thrives on crimes like extortion and kidnapping. Criminalized elements of the self-defense forces and Knights Templar rival the Jalisco
Neighboring Guerrero is also home to a vigilante movement that is showing signs of division, as well as a proliferation of smaller criminal gangs with a strong presence in Acapulco. Morelos, too -- which had Mexico's highest kidnapping rate as of 2013 -- has recently seen cartel splinter groups vie for control, though the state was traditionally one of the more peaceful ones (and used to have the central region's lowest kidnapping figures.)
Meanwhile, Mexico state is reportedly the site of a bloody power struggle between four rival cartels.
It is also worth observing that there may be a correlation between the number of kidnappings reported and the degree to which a community trusts the security forces. The less the public trusts the police, the less likely it is that they will report a kidnapping. This may enforce criminals' perception that kidnapping is a low-risk business with high rewards. In Tamaulipas, for instance, high kidnapping numbers in 2013 correlated with a lack of confidence in the police. About one third of respondents to the government's most recent victimization survey said they viewed the police as completely ineffective.
As Peña Nieto claims success in lowering kidnappings, certain states continue to represent major trouble spots. The government should review its security strategies in this regard. Actions like federal security force interventions -- which have been implemented in Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Mexico State -- have not proved to have long-lasting positive results, and fail to target structural factors that allow crimes like kidnapping to flourish.
It's also clear that despite the implementation of an anti-kidnapping strategy, Mexico still has a long way to go in increasing inter-institutional communication and transparency in order to better document kidnapping, and thus better combat impunity for the crime.